| Greenville, Ala. -- It was just one incident... in one small town in lower Alabama. But by the response it got, you would've thought a terrible scandal had befallen a socialite or the mafia had whacked a city councilman.
It seems everybody in Greenville -- population 8,000 -- was talking about Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold's golf trip. Well not necessarily the trip -- or even the fact that he came to Greenville to play golf, but the comments Senator Feingold wrote about the town after he left.
"...wondering why people in that area would vote Democrat at the local level and Bush at the national level. Including the fact that obviously people there had some difficulties in terms of jobs and healthcare issues like many people do in Wisconsin. And I was just trying to understand what had happened in terms of the Democratic Party and our ability to connect with people in places like Greenville."
But in the piece published by Salon.com, Senator Feingold -- who is pondering a presidential run in 2008 -- used terms like "abject trailer parks" and "check-cashing stores" to describe what he and his wife saw in Greenville when they visited. He said Greenville very well may be the --quote-- "reddest spot on the whole map." But many residents heard "red" as in "red neck," not "red state/blue state."
Needless to say most people in Greenville didn't like the piece.
"It upset me to read the article. I don't like anybody to talk about a town that I love -- and I've lived here all my life -- and, talking to him on the phone, I told him it was sort of like talking about my children... and I don't appreciate it."
That's Greenville Mayor Dexter McClendon. He says after the Salon piece made its way across the world-wide-web, the floodgate of opinions opened up.
"Oh man, I got e-mails from out of state, I got a lot of calls from friends of mine, we had articles in the paper. A lot of people - and most of them Republicans - were real upset with Mr. Feingold's response."
And that's how Mayor McClendon summarized the winter in Greenville's discontent...it was mainly a political debate. But others didn't see it that way.
And at lunch at the Court Square Cafe, they didn't hold back.
"If you don't know the town, how can you make an opinion about them? That's judging something that you know nothing about. You know what I'm saying? Yeah, I've heard people talking about it at church and stuff and they have the same kind of attitude that I do about it. " - "(He) pretty much needs to go back to where he come from. That's true. We from the south and we're proud of it. If you don't like it...get out. I think they need to come and stay for a while and see the place. Once you come and see the place you get used to it. And it's a real good environment." - "He can also go back to his own state. Just because we're a small town that might not be as big as his. I'm sure t hey got these places up where he come from. Don't you think? Probably so."
Get the idea? People got angry about the comments.
"I think it's true. There was a reaction."
Again, Senator Feingold.
"And I think there may be a suspicion of people who come from the outside and even want to talk about what's going on in Alabama. But I did it in the spirit of talking about what's going on throughout the country. And to not have Wisconsin and Alabama be treated as if they're from different countries. They're not. We're one country."
But it's certainly not the first time residents of a small Alabama town were thrust into this 'one country' debate. Think Wedowee and the principal of the local high school who wouldn't allow interracial couples to the prom. Think of the judge in Andalusia who wears the Ten Commandments on his robe. Think George Wallace and Bull Connor. Whatever your opinion on whatever controversial issue -- right or wrong -- Alabama is often ground zero of the debate. And the response from locals often mimics the ones you just heard from the Court Square Cafe.
"If you don't like it...get out. " - "He can also go back to his own state."
According to one expert, it's a classic human response.
"The love it-or-leave it mentality I think is a fairly natural response to basically having low self-esteem, or unstable self-esteem at least (do you think Alabama has a self-esteem problem?) I think it does, yes."
That's Dr. Rick McCallum, a professor of Psychology at Birmingham- Southern College who, incidentally is NOT diagnosing anyone as having low self-esteem. He's talking about the state of Alabama, collectively, and how residents interpret criticism about the state.
Having been in the spotlight over the years, with the national media focusing on a host of socio-political issues, Dr. McCallum says it starts to take a psychological toll.
"A person has a need to think well of themselves. They can't function unless really if they don't have some degree of positive self-regard. So, they tend to engage in various sorts of strategies to enhance their self-regard, or maintain it, or protect it. So, for example they might look around for people they can compare with that are worse off or less competent, or less successful...which is called 'downward social comparison' and that's one strategy you might use to protect your self-esteem when you feel like you're being criticized or put down in some sort of way. (So that could be like a 'Thank God for Mississippi') Thank God for Mississippi, yes."
That's a phrase used in Alabama -- and other states that rank close to the bottom in certain ratings -- education, infant mortality, poverty. And it may or may not be true. Mississippians could be saying, "Thank God for Alabama," or "Thank God for Arkansas!"
Historically, the idea -- this low self-esteem mentality that Dr. McCallum speaks of -- is rooted in the early 19th Century south: before the Civil War and complete with an early American chip on its shoulder when the issue of slavery divided the country.
"So much so that southerners kind of circled the wagons and got very defensive about what was being said about them. And created kind of a defensive temper."
Sam Webb is a history professor at UAB.
"And I think that carried on... I don't think there's any question that that carried over to the Civil War period. And then of course, after the Civil War, because there was this feeling that somehow the north looks down on us... the north thinks we're immoral. And Southerners were very defensive -- and still are very defensive -- to criticism from the outside. And if you come up and criticize Birmingham or criticize the state of Alabama, and you're an outsider -- then as far as you're concerned -- they're concerned, you can just leave."
But economic developers in Alabama don't necessarily want that to happen. Because when people leave, they take jobs and money with them.
Dr. Joe Sumners is Director of the Economic Development Institute at Auburn University.
"I think a problem comes with that kind of attitude, 'we're Alabama, we're as good as anybody.' The problem is in the cases where we're not. And we're not in some areas like investment in education and in our schools. Those kind of things really need work. And if you say, we're as good as anybody we don't need to make any kind of changes, then that can be a problem."
Dr. Sumners says instead of focusing on deep-seeded defense mechanisms of the past, Alabama needs to look at what drives the economy of the future and adjust where needed. He says the state's education system is a good place to start. And he says the technology infrastructure could use some attention too. In both categories, he says, Alabama lags behind most other states -- northern and southern.
Green -- as in greenbacks -- he says, trumps red and blue state America.
But in GreenVILLE, the wounds of a tattered town ego or Senatorial snafu are healing quickly. Senator Feingold was invited back to Butler County for some golf and dinner with Mayor McClendon. He showed up with his wife again ... But this time, it was just smiles and gratitude for the opportunity to come back.
~Steve Chiotakis, April 15, 2005